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Smoking and Degenerative Disc Disease of the Cervical Spine

Dr Paul McDonough MD

Paul W. McDonough, MD, serves as a spine surgeon at Orthopedic Associates of Abilene in Texas. There, Dr. Paul McDonough treats a variety of spine conditions, including cervical degenerative disc disease.

According to findings shared in 2016 at the Association of Academic Physiatrists Annual Meeting, smoking may cause degenerative disc disease in the cervical spine to progress more quickly. This disease occurs when the intervertebral discs of the spine dry out and break down, which allows the gel-like disc material inside to escape its outer shell. The leaked disc material can then cause irritation of nearby nerves, which often leads to pain in the shoulders, arms, hands, and other parts of the body.
To assess the effects of smoking on this condition, researchers evaluated imaging from 182 patients and rated each disc as normal to severe. Giving each vertebra a score of zero as normal to three as severe, they rated each spine from zero to 15. Then, they compared findings with each participant's smoking history and considered other potentially relevant information, including body mass index (BMI) and blood cholesterol levels.
Data showed that current smokers within the sample had a total score that was one point higher than non-smokers. Researchers attribute the connection to the negative effects of smoking on the blood vessels that deliver crucial nutrients to the intervertebral discs. Without an adequate supply of these nutrients, the natural wear and tear of aging on the discs occurs more rapidly. Findings align with earlier work that connects smoking to worsening disc degeneration in the lumbar spine, although it is the first to make the same association specifically with the cervical spine.

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